3e’s introduction of Prestige Classes was a kind of neat idea, full of promise, that never really paid off. Most of them were bad, and a few of them were truly broken, and in large part they ended up existing solely to see what kind of abusive combinations people could come up with.
At first glance, Paragon Paths and Epic Destinies were supposed to fix that, and they kind of do. Since they can’t be combined the way Prestige Classes were, there’s less room for abuse, and since everyone gets them (and they’re layered on top of your normal class) it seems more equitable. And mechanically, it mostly works out. There are a few exceptions – every “broken” character I’ve seen for 4e depends on one or more of the three unique sources of powers (Race, Paragon path and Epic Destiny) combined in weird ways, but even those have usually depended on a creative misreading of the rules. By and large, they’re a mechanical improvement.
But they still fall flat for me. This is another case of the color going one way and the system going another, and someday I’ll make peace with that, but probably not today. The thing is this: some paragon paths are transparently just wrappers around a mechanic but most of them have some element of story to them. Yes, sometimes that story is a bit of a headscratcher, but mostly they’re interesting elements that might add something fun to the world. But that’s where the break down. First, if the powers for the PP are a bad match for your character, it doesn’t matter HOW good the color is, it’s not worth picking up. The powers are just too important to play to pick something blatantly ineffective. Other games can support non-optimal choices to varying degrees, but not 4E.
Second, since this choice is not made until 11th level, any plot elements that the Paragon path introduce end up coming out of left field. If I knew from the outset that a player was going to pick a particular Paragon Path, then it would be possible to introduce those elements into play over the course of the game. If you’re going to become a pit fighter, maybe I’ll have you fight in a pit. If you’re going to join the Cerulean Order, maybe I’ll actually take steps to actually introduce the Cerulean Order into the game.
As with many things in 4E, the first problem is easily enough solved with reskinning. Just say to the GM “I want the background from this Paragon path, but the powers from this Paragon Path” and bam, you’re good. It might take a little tweaking, so a Dwarven Kensai might actually be a an axe-master, but that’s pretty trivial.
Solving the second problem’s a little more involved. You could just have players tell you what Paragon path they’re going for, but in many cases they may not know yet. Back when I was actually writing 4e Products I had an idea I rather liked which I know throw out into the wild. I always thought that Paragon Paths could come with feats, or more specifically, one feat per Paragon Path, offering something useful that synced with the powers and abilities of the Paragon Path. They’d be on the same level as racial feats, that is to say, intentionally a little bit better than regular feats because they reinforce a theme. They’d be handy for characters and, more importantly, they would flag to the DM that the player was going in that direction, so he could start introducing those elements earlier on in the game.
All of these concerns apply to epic destinies as well, and there’s a case t be made that the same solutions could apply. I could see it. But I admit I’m tempted to do something weirder and just let players pick up Epic Destinies at level 1 (as if level 1 were level 21).
Sounds dangerous, I know. Players will get some kind of death resistance and may pick up a big whammy of a power, but to be frank, it’s only one whammy (and in many cases, it’s not much of a whammy, since it tends to rely on other powers – though it may then be many whammies). It’s a power bump, no question, but it also lets you START stories about the children of gods and chosen saints rather than discover those stories 20 levels in. 
Honestly, I like the direction that Paragon Paths and Epic Destinies seem to indicate. And if you actually just want to start a game at level 11 or 21, they work fantastically, at least in part because they suggest that the history of the character has lead to this starting point. It’s my hope that, with a little tweaking, that that can also be accomplished through play.
1- And I’m ok with this. Honest crunch is not a bad thing.
2- If the mechanical element worries you, spread out the rewards so they’re over 30 levels not 10, and that should mitigate things enough.
I’ve always loved the flavor in Epic Destinies (not Paragon Paths as much, but the “here is a neat way that my story ends” has always seemed like a lot of fun. But as I never actually run games in Epic (and don’t think I’d want to, since it gets really complicated and somewhat silly for my tastes), I never get to use them.
Thus I’m intrigued by the idea of giving Destinies at level 1. How exactly would you spread out the abilities over, say, Heroic tier? Do you just subtract 20 (or 10) from each level the ability is gained at? Or do you get the 21 ability at start, the 24 ability about midway through the game, and the 30 ability near the end?
I’m thinking it might be fun to have each ability have a minimum level of say normal-20, but the player has to do something somewhat significant in-game to unlock it. So if the player wants to become a demi-god, maybe they have to be knocked unconscious and come back to life, or maybe have to defeat some particular foe. Of course, inter-party balance can get thrown out of whack if one person is pursuing their destiny but others aren’t, but I’m not sure how bad it would be (and Star Wars Saga seems to get by okay with some people having Destinies and others not). It requires a lot more work from the DM to make sure stuff is integrated into the story, but that’s the whole point–integrating the characters into the game.
Subtracting 20 is easiest, but I think you hit on the far superior solution. The GM should look at the EDs and set up the game so that certain key points open them up. Those might overlap with specific levels, but tying them to the character’s story is more compelling.
With that in mind, I would do two things. First, I’d make sure the trigger is at least somewhat external to the player and not totally luck driven. As Gm, I want to be able to pull that lever when appropriate.
The second thing is I’d probably have the players talk some about their epic destinies and, ideally, tie them all together in some way. This makes for a better story, and it also makes it easier for the Gm to tie the keystone points together.
When I was playing, I had my Paragon Path and Epic Destiny picked out when I made the character. I knew where I wanted to head.
Is that odd?
@judd I don’t think it’s crazily rare, but I think it’s uncommon. If nothing else, a lot of people hold off on deciding because something new might come out in a book or online between now and then.
Hey, Rob. I posted a blog with some similar thoughts a little while ago. I’m doing a series rating various game aspects that were new to 4E and whether we made them really work or not. http://loganbonner.blogspot.com/2010/04/4e-success-or-failure-paragon-paths.html
@logan Damn, that is a badass analysis. I want more of them!
I’ve been hit with a couple big projects, but I plan to do more in the future. I also have a post for a different series that’s just sitting half-written in an open tab….